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April 27, 2011 3:11 PM Too Much Choice?

By Daniel Luzer

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Critics have long maintained that part of the benefit of the American education system is that it offers students such freedom. Children can expect to be whatever they want when they grow up. Even once they approach the completion of high school, they still enjoy considerable freedom in deciding what they want to do subsequently. Once they get to school they have a diverse array of majors and classes to take to reach their goals.

That might be the problem. According to a piece by Judith Scott-Clayton in the Teachers College Record:

Many factors contribute to high dropout rates, including poor academic preparation and insufficient financial supports. One potentially contributing factor, however, has received far less attention: that students may be overwhelmed by the very flexibility and choice that are the hallmarks of U.S. higher education.
When it comes to complex decisions with long-term implications, individuals often struggle to determine which factors are most important, to gather all of the relevant information, and to appropriately weigh the costs and benefits in a final calculation. For students trying to choose the right courses, just acquiring all of the necessary information, let alone absorbing it, can be prohibitively time-consuming. Details about course content are often located in one place, course schedules in another, and program rules and requirements in yet another—often in a several-hundred-page academic catalog. Some pieces of critically important information, such as instructor quality, may not be revealed until after a decision is made.

Judith Scott-Clayton isn’t the first person to make this point, that people might be more likely to complete college if they simply had less choice about what to do there. That idea is central to the success of vocational programs like those at the Tennessee Tech Centers, where students have very few options in terms of the courses they have to take.

Still, Scott-Clayton’s real point is more complicated. Perhaps just giving students greater guidance might help them complete college at higher rates. Even the evidence she points to suggests the problem is not too much choice so much as very little information about the choices available. As she explains:

Incoming students could be pre-registered for a set of common foundational courses, which they would then be free to change. Returning students could be pre-registered for a set of logical follow-up courses based on their major and previous coursework. Alternatively, schools could provide the equivalent of a “prix-fixe” menu, offering a limited selection of pre-packaged pathways while still allowing students to choose it “a la carte.”

The actual path to graduation, in most cases, is relatively straightforward. The problem is that it’s often hard to navigate through a bunch of irrelevant information (e.g. listing courses alphabetically) to get to the point where that path becomes clear. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer